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Personal Water Crafts

This has been one crazy summer. We’re in August and there are still tons of people moving around, the water has been choppy to rough with some pretty strong rip currents, and our call volume has been equivalent to days in May or June. Last weekend we moved a couple thousand people away from rip currents, made a number of rescues, responded to several “possible drowning” calls and made the scene of a few boaters in distress. Our lifeguards have been knocking it out of the park and have both prevented and responded to hundreds of thousands of accidents so far this season. They have few tools to help them, most of this work is done with a simple rescue tube and set of fins. For some of the weird stuff that happens farther off shore or in the bay, we go to what has become a vital piece of equipment in recent history for any state of the art lifeguard service- the Personal Water Craft (PWC).
A PWC is a pretty unique vehicle. Because they use a jet drive to funnel water from the bottom of the craft and shoot it out of the back, they have some real advantages compared to a powerboat. They can run in really shallow water because there’s no prop. They also don’t have the danger inherent in a propeller churning when working or playing near the power source.
The Galveston Beach Patrol was the first lifeguard service in the country, and probably the world, to use the PWC as a rescue device back in 1984. We were given two Yamaha Wave Runners for some kind of promotional deal. We used them for patrolling and shepherding swimmers closer to shore but not so much for rescue. We hosted a meeting for the United States Lifesaving Association that year and let everyone try them out. The next year the Hawaiians figured out that you could attach a rescue sled on the back to pick up victims, and history was made. My buddy Brian Keaulana is justifiably credited with being the pioneer of PWC rescue. He and his team used one to make a crazy rescue in a cave on the north shore of Oahu that was videotaped and helped promote the effectiveness of the PWC as a rescue device all over the world.
Nowadays beach guards can drop a PWC in the water almost anywhere and be to a victim within seconds. We use a rescue sled to bring the victims in or use it as a working platform in the water. We can do anything on that sled from CPR to spinal immobilization. We have them placed all over the island during the day for quick access and every Supervisor is a certified rescue operator.
We still make the vast majority of surf rescues the old fashion way- swimming with a rescue tube and fins, or paddling out on a rescue board. But in many ways the PWC revolutionized longer distance surf rescue, and for better or worse, we’ve all grown very dependent on them.

Jetty Jump

The young woman crouched down on the slippery surface of the rocks. Her heart beat rapidly as she watched the guy in front of her navigate down the steep part. She tried to ignore the cuts on the top of her foot from the last try. “This time I’ll get it right”, she thought to herself determinedly. He jumped and landed with his rescue tube held out in front of him. “NO!” shouted the instructor. “Keep that buoy tight to your body so you hit like a pancake…And remember head up and buoy covering all your important parts when you hit the water!”
When her turn came she walked forward carefully, making sure her bare feet avoided the green patches of algae. The small barnacles were like sandpaper that gave her feet good purchase. As long as she didn’t twist them or step on the parts with big barnacles, she’d have minimal cuts the next day. At least that’s what her instructor told her.
As she came to the steep part she stopped, rehearsing everything her instructor told her. She made sure there was no slack in the rope connecting to her rescue tube and that the heavy buckle was not on the end near her face. She kept her center of gravity low, but made sure she didn’t rest her butt or her rescue tube on the rocks so a passing wave would pass under her instead of sweeping her off her feet and across the barnacle ridden rocks. Most importantly, she reminded herself to watch the water.
As a gap between the sets of waves approached the instructor said, “Now. Ease down. Watch the water”. As she lowered herself down she stood up straight briefly. “FOCUS!” her instructor shouted. “Three point stance, butt down, but not all the way on the rocks” she added. The young woman corrected herself and got in position. She watched the water intently, waiting.
“Here it comes!” shouted the instructor. A large set of waves was rolling in. It was too late to go back up to the relative safety of high ground. The woman’s throat felt dry and she momentarily felt nauseous.
“I can do this”, she said to herself. She focused on the first wave. Time slowed down and her vision narrowed. She couldn’t hear anything. As the wave neared she jumped. She held the buoy to her chest tightly and arched her back as she floated above the water for what seemed like an eternity.
BOOM! She landed on the crest and slid off the back. Time returned to normal as she rolled sideways and put on her fins in one smooth motion. She took a couple of careful strokes and realized she hadn’t hit anything. She surfaced and turned around. Her instructor had a big smile on her face and she shouted, “Perfect! 3 more…”
The woman smiled to herself as she used the rip current to swim around the jetty. When the time came to do it for real, she’d be ready.

61 Rescue

Early on Saturday morning Supervisor Nikki Harclerode was putting the condition flags up at the stations on the seawall. She was placing the flag in the holder at 61st street. She was the only lifeguard out there as even the “A” shift guards were still out doing their pre-work training session. Nikki is a very experienced lifeguard who has worked for us for a number of years. She also is extremely focused and rarely lets anything fall between the cracks. On top of that she’s one of the better athletes in a group full of talent and has several national titles in Lifesaving Sport under her belt.
On this particular morning, something didn’t feel right. In her peripheral vision she noticed three heads where they shouldn’t be near the rocks. She called for backup and went in. A couple of us who were working and training jumped in our trucks at Stewart Beach and headed her way. We respond with a minimum of the same number of guards as people in distress if possible. It’s hard enough dealing with one panicked person in the water, much less three. Someone much smaller can overpower you when they’re afraid and it doesn’t take much to incapacitate you by a kick to the wrong area, a poke to your throat, or simply by accidently choking on water in the heat of struggling with a victim.
As we raced to help her, knowing that we most likely wouldn’t make it in time to help with the actual rescue, time was distorting from Nikki’s perspective. She ran down the rocks and her perception expanded. She saw three teenagers actively struggling about ¾ of the way out to the end of the rock groin. A woman was screaming and running into the water to her side. Nikki surmised this was the mother of at least one of the victims. Without breaking stride, Nikki yelled for the mom to stay where she was and told her she’d take care of them. The mom teetered on the edge of the no swimming area but reluctantly stayed put. This allowed Nikki to focus fully on the rescue.
Nikki high stepped through the shallow water, then began diving repeatedly through waist deep water dolphin style. She took a final dive, rolled over and put on her fins. Trailing her rescue tube she took a few strokes and then looked up. All three heads were still afloat. She yelled for them to stay away from the rocks and that she’d be there soon. She arrived a few seconds later to find they didn’t heed her advice and were banging around on the rocks trying to climb up. She came up behind the first and pushed him up then did the same for the second. The third victim was starting to go under and she struggled briefly with her before shoving her up on the rocks with the others. They were floundering but she climbed up and pushed them all up to dry rocks. Aside from cuts they were fine.

Junior Guard

A group of kids stand in a row in front of their rescue boards along the shoreline wearing yellow tank jerseys and carrying their rescue tubes on one hand. Some of them are vibrating slightly as they get ready to go into action. They then grab their boards and stand on the line. The instructor yells for them to start and they spring for the water. As they get into shallows they bunny hop and then a few hop on their knees and power through the inside break while the rest drop to their bellies. Sports day for the Junior Guards!
The Beach Patrol Junior Lifeguard Day Camp is well structured and economically priced. We offer a number of scholarships as well. We started it in the late 80’s to be a feeder program for lifeguards.
Participants undergo one and a half hours of classroom instruction in each four-hour day, studying topics as diverse as beach lifeguard principles, first aid, CPR, marine biology and ecology, and sports fitness topics.
Junior Guards are exposed to a wide range of activities. They learn about the lifeguards workday by assisting real lifeguards as they perform their regular duties. They play games that are relevant to the lecture and classroom topics. And they participate in several educational field trips.
Our objectives are to show the participants the values of mental and physical discipline and to teach them to respect themselves, others, authority, and the natural environment. Our primary purpose is to provide a fun, safe place for youths to grow and learn about themselves and the diverse environments of the Texas Gulf Coast. Our hope is that many of them will become the lifeguards of the future.
The Junior Life Guard Program starts in June and continues for six weeks. Sessions are held three times a week with Fridays as an optional sports training day. “Sports day” will offer more intensive physical training and Lifeguard Sport competition practice. Most of our full time staff and about 40 percent of our total staff were Junior Guards.
Today at Stewart Beach is the final day of the program. The guards have “Beachfest” from 8am to 2pm. They’ll have friendly competitions, food, and awards and time to socialize and share memories with all their beach friends, parents, supporters, and the lifeguard staff.
You are welcome to come hang out and see what these amazing guards of the future can do!

San Luis Pass

At the San Luis Pass, the tide change flows through a gap only about a mile across. It bottlenecks and accelerates the tidal current tremendously. So roughly every 6 hours it changes directions and builds up to full strength. The entire pass is very dangerous, but there are two spots that catch the brunt of the current and are exceptionally so. On the Brazoria side, just on the north side of the bridge there is a little beach park. A point of sand extends into the pass, maybe 200 yards north of the bridge, that diverts the current, which results in a deep area right were the current pulls away from shore. On the Galveston side, the worst part is on the south side, where the beach makes the turn into the channel. There’s a point there where the current runs very close to shore, causing unbelievably strong currents and deep, deep areas. All that current and bottom change is a recipe for death for swimmers, but it makes for phenomenal fishing.
On the weekends in the summer we have a designated “San Luis Pass Patrol” who has the tough job of patrolling the Galveston side of the pass, keeping people out of the water where we’ve posted signs. Since we started the program, drowning deaths have dropped dramatically in that area.
One of our guards who worked out there last weekend was telling me an all too familiar story. He was at that dangerous point, trying to move some people wade fishing. He asked one man to stay out of the water and fish from the shoreline instead. He gave the usual information- “This is a really dangerous area because…. we’ve had a number of drownings in this exact location because….There’s a city ordinance that prohibits being in the water here….Fishing is fine but can you cast from the dry sand?…”. The man refused repeatedly saying basically that, “I’m a BOI…I’ve fished out here for years before the law was in place.. You get [insert important Galvestonian] out here to tell me …..Even though it’s dangerous for them it’s not dangerous for me because….”
This is a collective issue in our society. It’s like the guy that I asked to put his dog on a leash on a busy holiday at Stewart Beach. His response was, “But this is the friendliest dog you’ll ever meet.” That could be true, and the dog was really cute, but what about the rabid beast nearby? The fisherman may know what he’s doing. The dog may actually be on a “verbal leash”. But if we make exceptions for “special cases” where does it end?
If we each think that we can do what works best for us at the time- text while driving, park in the red zone, cut the line, drive where others can’t, swim in the rip current, or ignore any of the rules in place for our collective good and safety, where does that leave everyone else? Where does that leave our society?

Big Crowds

The Beach Patrol has had a rough season so far. Much of this has been covered in the news and I’ll cover some of this in a future column. But last weekend we saw what is probably the busiest weekend we’ve had in a few years. Many have attributed this to the news stories that happened during and after Memorial Weekend. Others say it’s because we had such a cold spring and everyone was chomping at the bit to get out to the beach. Whatever the reason or combination of reasons, the combination of crowds and rough weather stretched us to our absolute limits.
At one point of the day we had 4 major calls going on simultaneously including two “possible drowning” calls, a boating emergency, and a CPR in progress call. Threaded through all the big calls was a continual backdrop of lost children (35 or so each day), minor medical calls, swimmers being moved from danger, calls for assistance because people wouldn’t follow lifeguards’ direction, trash can fires, disputes, complaints about music/parking/other people, dogs off their leashes, and a million other things. I was so incredibly proud of how hard our staff worked to take care of their respective parts of the 32 miles of coast line.
The water was no longer blue and clear, although it was still a nice sandy green. But lots of people were asking why we didn’t make the water more blue. I still think some people don’t realize the beach isn’t a water park! But it did get me to thinking about water color and clarity.
There are lots of theories about this but what I’ve seen over the years is that the water follows two basic rules. The first is very obvious. If there are waves the sand gets churned up in the water. So it’s a little less clear than it would be without the wave energy in the water.
The other, and more significant rule, is that if the wind blows from the southwest or west, the current comes from down the coast (from west to east). When that happens, the water gets more brown in color and less clear. There is a very simple reason for that. Just below us the Brazos River empties into the Gulf. The Brazos River is very silty and brown. When it empties into the gulf and the current pushes it up to Galveston.
If the water comes from above us, with a wind from an easterly direction, the water defaults to its normal color of green or even blue. If there is not much surf activity for a couple of days the silt settles out of it and it can get very clear. This happens about half the time, but is typical of the second half of the summer.
So, over Memorial Weekend, with big crowds, media coverage, and beautiful clear water our local secret got out and people know it can get clear and beautiful. I hope they forget before we can’t afford to live here anymore!

Memorial Day for the Books

It’s rare that all the elements come together for a perfect weekend on a holiday. This year’s Memorial Weekend did. Three perfect days in a row. The sun was out, the winds were light. It was warm but not hot. And the water ranged from all the way flat to a very slight groundswell rolling in from the storm that hit Florida. On top of all that, the water was a beautiful emerald green and the fish were biting.
Even the crowds were near perfect. There were a lot of people here, but there wasn’t so many as to cause gridlock. Traffic moved, albeit slowly, on the seawall all three days. And, typical of the early season, everyone seemed to be in a pretty good mood. Everyone just seemed to be happy to be hanging out with friends and family, enjoying the amazing weather, and doing activities that they love.
I don’t mean to imply that things were perfect from the public safety side. You don’t get several hundred thousand people in one place without some mishaps. Some of the west end beaches had some issues later in the day, which were handled admirably as usual by the Galveston Police Department. As is the procedure on holidays, we clear the east end parks at the end of the day according to state guidelines. The process was mostly handled by the Park Board Security Detail, which is run by the Galveston Police Department. Beach Patrol helped as well. It went pretty smoothly considering that several thousand people had to get all their stuff together and get their vehicles out of the park. We also had a lightning storm blast through the east side of the island at peak crowd time on the peak day. Sunday at 3pm was a tough time to clear around 10,000 from the water when their having a good time! But we got through it and everyone got to get back to the party after about half an hour. We also had a tough time keeping swimmers out of the water at the ends of the island.
There were 5 calls of a “possible drowning” that we responded to. Two were false alarms and one was in a pool and was transported by EMS in stable condition. One was of a 3 year old girl at Hershey Beach on Saturday evening. A bystander reportedly pulled her in and started CPR. When we arrived she was alert and conscious. We put her on oxygen and EMS transported her. The tragic call dropped on Saturday morning early. An elderly man was out fishing at Pirates Beach in about waist deep water. A bystander noticed him face down and two men pulled him in. Multiple responders were there quickly but unfortunately, he did not survive. There were no signs of unusual currents or drop offs.
To give a feel for how busy we were over the weekend some stats are: 48,847 preventative actions, 25 lost children reunited, 36 medical responses, and about 200 enforcement actions.
Whew!

Come Support Your Local Lifeguards!

We’re putting together the final pieces for the busy season. We’re finishing up a lifeguard academy, finalizing our recurrent training for seasonal lifeguards, planning an awards and promotion ceremony for our staff, and scrambling to put all the pieces in place before summer kicks in for real.
There are two events that you may want to come see next week. Tuesday evening at 5pm at Stewart Beach we’ll have a “Mass Aquatic Casualty Emergency Operation” (M.A.C.E.O.) event. Our lifeguard candidates will be rescuers, experienced guards will comprise a number of “victims”, and several of our partner emergency response agencies will make rescues, provide crowd control, triage and treat patients, and more. It’s a great way to smooth out the kinks before we all do it for real over the busy beach season.
Wed evening at 5:30pm the returning guards join the rookies for a beast of a challenge. 65 lifeguards will run, dive into the surf and swim, then paddle rescue boards, and swim again. At some point they’ll run through a series of obstacle stations. It might be a mud crawl or a rope climb. They may do calisthenics, answer questions about lifesaving, jump off rock groins, perform mock rescues or more. It’s different every year.
There will be a point somewhere where each rookie will seriously doubt his/her ability to finish. There will be a point where they question their decision to join the Galveston Island Beach Patrol. They will wonder if being part of the team is worth the pain.
The last of the guards will trickle in up to 3 hours after starting to be welcomed by a crowd of fellow lifeguards, parents, friends, community supporters, and bystanders. After a welcome ceremony the whole group relaxes and tells stories at a pizza party.
This grueling event is the final physical challenge for the lifeguard candidates. But it’s bigger than that. For over 25 years this has been a way to show the candidates that they’re capable of so much more than they thought possible, and that there’s no challenge they can’t handle. The most grueling rescue pales in comparison to this event. It’s also a way for returning guards to measure their physical condition and to compare themselves to the new group. It’s a way to meld the staff into a seamless unit.
There’s an intangible element to getting so many diverse, often independent personalities to work together seamlessly. The training, protocols, and the chain of command get us only so far. But each individual link having a deep understanding that he/she is part of the chain is key. No one goes beyond what they thought were their physical, mental, or psychological limits for money or because they’re told to do so. It’s a selfless act for the greater good of a group. True lifeguards have to go through some pain and suffering to know in their hearts that they need the team and they have no limits to what they can do if they have to.
Come support!

Become a Lifeguard, Save a Life!

Here is an excerpt from a rescue report that was filed from last Sunday:

“Tower 43 (Lifeguard Suarez) called in moving swimmers out too far. Unit 297 (Supervisor Venegas and Supervisor Garcia) made scene. The lifeguard gave the “OK” signal and started to escort the swimmer on the rescue tube back to shore. Midway back to shore, the swimmer became tired, and the lifeguard had to secure the swimmer in his buoy in order to get him back to the beach. Supervisor Garcia Paddled out to the lifeguard and swimmer to make sure they were ok. All swimmers and guards made it back to shore with no complaints or injury. Unit back in service.”

This rescue was a fairly routine occurrence for our crew. But a lot of pieces to our overall “beach safety net” have to be in place before this can happen. We are so lucky that the hard work our guards do is recognized and appreciated and we recognize that that is something we continually need to strive to maintain. That’s a big part of why we have so many programs that tie to the community in which we are embedded, such as the Jesse Tree/ Beach Patrol Survivor Support Network, our Junior Lifeguard Program, being designated as a “Safe Place” for kids, our School Outreach Program, At-Risk Kids Camps, and more. There are several opportunities coming up to become involved with our program at different levels.

About 40 percent of our overall staff and the majority of our supervisors come out of our Junior Lifeguard Program. Participants aged 10-15 study topics as diverse as beach lifeguard principles, first aid, CPR, and marine biology/ecology. Our objectives are to show the participants the values of mental and physical discipline; and, to teach them to respect themselves, others, authority, and the natural environment. Our hope is that many of the participants will become the lifeguards of the future. This year the Junior Life Guard Program starts June 4th and continues for six weeks. There are still spaces available.

The Galveston Island Beach Patrol “Wave Watcher” Volunteer Program is a way for ordinary citizens to join our team. It’s a mini lifeguard academy for that is free of charge and that will serve as a force multiplier in our effort to prevent drowning deaths and aquatic accidents. We are currently accepting applicants for the 2nd academy of the year, which is scheduled from May 29th to June 1st if there are enough interested people.

Tomorrow, May 12th, 2018 we have lifeguard tryouts at the Galveston Community Pool at Lasker Park at 7am (2016 43rd street Galveston TX, 77550). The Academy will start immediately after and run for two weeks.  The course consists of 100 hours of training including American Red Cross Emergency Medical Response and CPR for the Professional Rescuer, United States Lifesaving Association Open Water Lifeguard Training, tourist relations training, and physical training. Candidates must be 16 or older, able to swim 500 meters in 10 minutes or less, and pass a urine drug screen. Info is on our website. WE NEED GUARDS!

Wave Watchers

A group of people stood near the end of the rock groin at 37th street. They took turns removing the ring buoy and attached throw bag from the rescue box and throwing it to an imaginary victim in the water. The trick is to make sure the loop on the outside of the bag is secure by holding it in your hand or stepping on it with your foot while you toss the ring. The ring should be tossed over the head of the victim and gently pulled back to where the person’s head is. You can walk up side to side when you pull to make sure the ring contacts the person. If you miss, you don’t take the time to stuff the rope back in the bag, but coil it on one hand while stepping on the “bag end” of the rope. Your coils should go from the body out, so when you throw they don’t cross over the other ropes and tangle. When you re-stuff the bag with the rope, make sure it’s not coiled. You just feed the rope directly in the bag. It’s all about not letting the rope tangle. As in much of rescue work, the simplest thing gets complicated if not done the same way each time. It’s all about eliminating variables, so when things inevitably go wrong, you have less on your plate. Even professional rescuers don’t always think clearly under duress, so the more you can prepare equipment and practice before hand, the less you have to figure out on the fly.
This was just one activity that our recently graduated class of “Wave Watchers” undertook. Much of the course was in the classroom. They were certified in CPR and became official “Tourist Ambassadors”. We talked about beach topography and near shore bathymetry, rip and long shore currents, lost children protocols, beach rules and ordinances, drowning events, dangerous marine life and treatments, and Galveston areas that are hazardous to swimmers. On the final day they toured the beach, were issued uniform shirts and hats, received an official ID card, and we finished up with a celebratory lunch together.
This was the second class of Wave Watchers to graduate. We were joined at times by most of the Park Board Tourist Ambassadors that work the parking area of the seawall. Former Wave Watcher’s gave lectures and joined the class as a refresher. A wonderful group of 14 graduated.
The Wave Watchers have two running conversations on an app. One is for “Beach Operations” and includes reporting situations that need intervention by Beach Patrol staff or other groups. Their stats are entered into our data base so we can keep track of preventative or enforcement actions. That thread also includes daily beach information, warning flag colors, etc. The other thread is for general communication.
The Wave Watcher program has been a great force multiplier for the Beach Patrol and has become an integral part of our family. Let us know on our website if you would like to join the next class!